Mueller report could be brutal for Trump, but are Dems up to the follow-through?

Mueller report could be brutal for Trump, but are Dems up to the follow-through?
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The amazing spectacle of six House committee chairmen issuing a statement calling on Attorney General Barr to cancel a planned press conference Thursday ahead of the release of the Mueller report had me gobsmacked.

The stated reason for their demand was that Barr was seeking “to shape public perceptions of the report before anyone can read it.”

Well, imagine that.  The nerve of politicians on one side of the aisle trying to exploit a built-in advantage over the other side.  That’s just not cricket.

The casual observer would be wondering, what’s wrong with a little transparency?  And, how many chairmen does it take to send such a limp message?

On a more critical level, if Barr had indeed cancelled the presser, House Democrats would not have received the priceless gift Barr gave them that morning: He self-detonated his own credibility.  He Nunes-ed himself.

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There are two ways to look at Barr’s actions.  The first is a highly political one.  While using home field advantage to control the release of the report and shape the public narrative, it backfired as Barr revealed himself to be nothing more than a political hack for the president.  No wonder Mueller wasn’t at the press conference.  For that high price, Barr didn’t make a dent in altering the powerful momentum of Mueller’s report.  

The second view is much more ominous.  If the nation’s chief law enforcement officer is a political hack, what’s going to happen in those 14 spin-off cases referred to in the Mueller report?  Is Barr going to place his thumb on the scales of justice in any or all of those cases?  Or perhaps future cases involving Republican scoundrels?  Will Barr’s reveal cause prosecutors to look over their shoulders at Barr or even heed the president’s bullying tweets?  Will Barr rehire Matt ‘The Fixer’ Whitaker to make deals with recalcitrant prosecutors that they can’t refuse? 

Judiciary chair Jerold Nadler has his work cut out for him to oversee those issues alone.  Does he have enough staff and resources?  Is his staff experienced enough?

The Mueller report is anything but an exoneration of the president.  Former White House lawyer John Dean called it more damning than the Senate Watergate report.  A New York Times report calls the picture portrayed by Mueller “a hotbed of conflict infused by a culture of dishonesty.”

The truth of the matter is, where congressional oversight is concerned, the report even in its redacted form is a gift that will keep on giving.  There is no shortage of leads, witnesses, bread crumbs, paper trails, and unanswered questions.  Assuming Congress gets more sections unredacted and gets some of the underlying evidence, even more answers will emerge.  And some areas that Mueller left untouched — such as money laundering and tax violations — could still be pursued by the committees.  Truth and accountability, critical goals of oversight, are still possible.

What has flummoxed me, as an experienced oversight factfinder, is why six powerful committee chairmen would serve up such a wimpy and irrelevant response to the Attorney General over calling a press conference without calculating how weak that would look, especially if the presser isn’t cancelled.  With all due respect, House Dems have an oversight messaging problem and a strategy problem.

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The meat and potatoes of oversight strategy, besides gathering facts, is to contrast the facts gathered with what was claimed, what was actually done, or both.  Then you render the results into a coherent, well-messaged portrait populated by many, many such contrasts.  The portrait depicts the “culture” you have found through the fact-finding process.  When you describe the culture you have found, it helps explain why wrongful acts were done.  The “why” of what’s done is what everyone wants to know before they can believe it.  Otherwise, it comes across as political bickering.

An example of this would be contrasting what Barr said at his April 18 presser, plus what he said in his March 24 summary to Congress, with what is actually in the Mueller report.  Any fair reading of that contrast would conclude Barr misled Congress and the public.  That’s my reading.  The Washington Post agrees.  They gave him Three Pinocchios.  Barr took a colossal credibility hit.

As you collect more and more Three Pinocchio contrasts, a portrait of the culture emerges.  That’s what Mueller did.  The New York Times describes it as “a culture of dishonesty.”  You then contrast the culture you’ve discovered with what it should be.   

As someone interested in the truth instead of politics, I fear House Democrats are playing softball in a hardball game.  Instead of whining about press conferences, they need to create their own public perception of not just the Mueller report, but what it teaches us about the president and his White House.  That perception must be rooted of course in the truth, as more facts emerge, and then it must be messaged properly.

The difficulty is that, under this president, he and his henchmen are willing to gaslight to fend off the truth.  The Mueller report delineates which of the president’s people went along with the gaslighting and which didn’t, most notably Don McGahn.  Others in the president’s party, wittingly or not, are buying into the alternative hogwash that the investigators are the culprits.

Compounding the difficulty is that the president is a master gaslighter, armed with pithy bumper sticker slogans: No Collusion!  No Obstruction!  Fake News!  Lock Her Up!

House Dems don’t need to be quite as expert as the president in a branding duel.  In any battle between gaslighters and truth-seekers, I’ll put my money on the truth.  But the Dems need to figure out how to convince the public that their side is right.  It will take a lot of months, a lot of hearings and story-telling, a little drama, and a lot of gumshoeing.  Finding the truth isn’t enough.  You need to convince the people.

Kris Kolesnik is a 34-year veteran of federal government oversight. He spent 19 years as senior counselor and director of investigations for Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa). Kolesnik then became executive director of the National Whistleblower Center. Finally, he spent 10 years working with the Department of the Interior’s Office of Inspector General as the associate inspector general for external affairs.